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Unnecessary complexity

Unnecessary complexity – I’ve been thinking about why some online courses are successful…why some technology tools are adopted by “the majority”…how the type of technology selected can assist in better learning…

It’s a tool sophistication vs. user needs issue. Consider Microsoft Word – it’s a feature rich program…it can be used for collaboration, commenting, change tracking, document merging, etc. Yet, most people use it as a word processor – typing out documents and applying basic formatting. Most people probably only use about 10% of the functionality of Word.

There is a correlation between user comfort with a tool and user need for using the tool (tool complexity vs. learner need). Dreamweaver is an excellent web design program. For simple webpages, most people are better off using a tool like Netscape Composer. Why? Composer provides only the functionality needed by a new user. It’s simple to learn…and it works. The Dreamweaver interface can be intimidating (in fairness, software designers attempt overcome the complexity/need concern by keeping core functionality prominent and “hiding” complex features in drop down menus).

What does this have to do with elearning? In this forum, I advocate for simple teaching tools (blogs, RSS, wikis, simple social technologies) and for flexible/extendable learning environments (communities of practices). Selecting complex tools that are beyond a learner’s needs result in learner frustration. The tools should be utilitarian and largely unnoticed. Simplicity is the easiest on-ramp to technology adoption and use. I teach a course at RRC called Teaching Online…and I’ve had greatest success staying with simple tools. Acceptance of tool complexity is proportional to use/need. Deciding on the tools is an instructional design issue…using them well is an instructor issue.


  1. Dr. Steven Hornik wrote:

    I think you bring up some intersting points. Unfortunately I believe that most people adopting e-learning technlogies simply use the platform that their Universities have chosen, often without consideration of the issues you’ve discussed.

    In research I’m currently working on, I’m finding that yes there must be a “goodness of fit” between the elearning technlogy and utilization of that technology for effective learning to take place. But since most prof’s aren’t going to switch from the “standard platform” they instead will have to learn how to encourage their students to create communities, sometimes desptie the technology getting in the way.

    In another research project we are finding our that it may be simply a matter of the type of course (Chemistry vs. English Lit) that impacts things such as learning, withdrawal rates and student statisfaction.

    Friday, August 15, 2003 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  2. Jay Cross wrote:

    Well, George, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, not to mention that less is more.

    Saturday, August 16, 2003 at 1:35 am | Permalink
  3. Ed Bilodeau wrote:

    “Most people probably only use about 10% of the functionality of Word.”

    Yes, but as Joel Spolsky has said, the problem is that everyone uses a different 10%! The same thing could be said for an e-learning platform chosen by a large university: they want to chose a product with the most features so that it might meet the largest range of needs within their teaching community. Ideally, the platform would make it easy for instructors to reduce the complexity by hiding functionality they are not using. WebCT, which we use at McGill, does a fair job of doing this.

    I’d also agree with the Dr. Hornik’s comment that the decision making process for selecting e-learning environments is probably not always based on the issues you mention. For example, and from what I understand, WebCT was chosen by McGill largely because of its ability to integrate with SCT Banner (our ‘enterprise’ information system). Not that the other functionality of WebCT wasn’t looked at, but it was probably seen as being good enough to satisfy our (modest) needs.

    Sunday, August 17, 2003 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  4. isaac wrote:

    It’s a KISS pinciple to all things. How people well utilize tools in teaching and learning always relys on the ICT literacy. Chasing simplicity is an iterative must-be.

    But one thing is still important, people is changing their learning context. So they will have to learn more even simple tools. It’s another kind of complexity.

    Sunday, August 17, 2003 at 10:23 pm | Permalink
  5. ashok varma wrote:

    Iam keen to know if there exists a learning platform which is a seamless integration of a CMS ,LMS LCMS,it needs to have the four most important learning components,which should exist in a true learning enviornment namely a learner ,adm.,instructor,parent module.There has to be a interplay,24/7 between these modules.The platform should be adaptive.Detailed learner profile,tutor on call via the net,lastly it should provide global benchmarking of learners in topics,chapters also at concepts level.
    Thanking you in advance.
    Ashok varma

    Wednesday, August 20, 2003 at 5:44 am | Permalink
  6. amirul zahid wrote:

    I believe that there is a need for simplicity , but we must think in the context of different users. Simple for a person doesn’t mean simple for someone else. I don’t think simple is the right word, I suggest ‘clear instruction’.

    Saturday, August 23, 2003 at 8:50 am | Permalink